Note: minor spoilers about The Americans inside. Well, unless you consider answering “what’s this whole show about” a spoiler, in which case, major spoilers, I guess.
Over the last month or so I’ve been watching The Americans, it’s all on Amazon Prime right now and I wanted something I could watch over dinner each night. I haven’t really watched any television in a while, kind of felt like this was a spot in my life where it fit okay.
Last week I was talking about the show with a friend, and I said, “You know, what I love about the show is that although it’s about spies, what it’s really about is how fundamentally unknowable other people are.” And he looked at me like I was crazy.
Almost at the very end of the third season, putting it almost squarely at the center of a six season show, Sandra Beeman¹ had this to say to one of the leads:
It’s hard in a couple. […] Even in a relationship that’s really new, you run into things, you have to work through it. […] It’s about everything. Learning how to be open. Really knowing yourself. Someone really knowing you. I’m not sure anyone in my life has ever really known me.²
And I said to myself, “well, that’s it then, that’s sort of the whole ball game.” They’ve told us what the whole show is about and to their credit, I was already at that point quite a number of episodes earlier. But: what now? What are they going to do for the next three seasons? The show obviously really isn’t about the KGB or the FBI or even the 80s, which mostly only appears as sort of background decor most of the time.
The answer, it seems, is that on the one hand, they’re going to have a bunch of plot. Which is fine, as far as it goes, honestly. It’s a well-plotted show and I’m often genuinely curious about where they’re going to go next and at times they surprise me. They are starting to wear a bit of a patch in the carpet around some issues: often, for example, an approach to solve a spy problem will have the two leads disagreeing about a course of action, and something will happen that gives them more time and space to process, and one of them will cave to the other and say, “you’re right.” This is all fine and good. It works as a show, there are multiple intersecting arcs, it’s all interesting enough.
On the other hand, now they seem to be also playing with the audience, teasing us with questions of how well we understand the characters. Leaving us in that ambiguous space where some big plot point is happening and we are no more sure of what one of the leads is thinking than the other lead is. I kind of love this, because it makes us empathize with these characters through this pretty fundamental, universal truth about people: we are unknowable to one another. I admit that I also kind of hate it because they are not good people: not because they are spies or Russians but because, well, they kill people.
That scene above, with Sandra Beeman, it happens after an EST session, a self-actualization fad/program/thing that ended in that form in the 80s, though I gather it maybe transformed into some other things; I’m not being dismissive, I just don’t care too much. Erhard Seminars Training being a real thing was actually one of the surprises in the show for me, I thought it was a stand-in for a general self-focus vibe that actually did feel pretty ego-driven 80s to me. It’s the perfect spot to make this declaration as to what the show’s about, because the underlying sentiment is that part of the reason we’re so unknowable to each other is that we’re pretty much unknowable to ourselves.
I feel like I have a million more things to say about this, touching on things like the fact that once a generation or so (the 60s, the 80s, the early 00s, and… gestures around uh… now) we as a culture have a real crisis about identity, whether at a personal or a national level or often, both. Or the ways in which parents leave marks on their children, and how they take responsibility for that, which is something on my mind a lot lately. Or, sometimes, the plot. Or a dozen other things. I’m just happy I’ve found a show I can watch for a little while every night that makes me think.
I’m also happy to learn that this show ends well; multiple people have commented on that to me. I’m curious to know whether I’ll feel that’s true. I’m not sure what ending this show well looks like to me. Or more accurately, whether my idea of ending this show well lines up with others. Because I feel like I just can’t know you people. 🙂
¹Wife of an FBI agent on the show, portrayed by Susan Misner — really well, actually, a great supporting cast almost universally.
²I’ve stitched together a few things here, but it all takes place in about thirty seconds, all from Sandra.